Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder



5. Structure

    As I've said, it is quite possible to make charts of the structure of stories.  There are three simple basic structures, and Heinlein has used them all.
     The very simplest is the straight line.  In this, a problem is set and then resolved, and the process of resolution carries the characters a distance away from the original situation.  There are two variants.
    The first version can be illustrated by The Rolling Stones.  It is an episodic story with an open end.  The problem is one of itchy feet, so Heinlein sets his people wandering.  The resolution is made when, after a number of episodes, they accept travel and exploration as a way of life.  The ending is not a resting point, but an arrow pointing onward.
    The Puppet Masters is an example of the second version.  The problem is begun by the landing of parasitic slugs, and is solved by their extermination.  The characters have moved from Point A to Point B, and no infinite series of points is implied.
    The second structure is the spiral.  In this case there is movement again from Point A to Point B, but the points are related.  For instance, Tunnel in the Sky begins with a boy watching and envying a wagon train guide leading a band of settlers out to start a colony on a new world.  It ends with the boy a wagon train guide leading another band of settlers in a scene that is a direct replay of the opening scene.  A more complicated example is Glory Road.  Oscar Gordon, the hero, is dissatisfied with life here-and-now.  He goes out to find adventure and comes back when the adventure is over to find himself still dissatisfied.  In this case, a continuing series of spirals is implied, a series of adventures with stops back at home base in between.
    The last structure is the circle.  In this one, Point A and Point B are identical.  The archetype of this might be the fairy tale in which the protagonist is granted three wishes which he uses badly.  The end of the story finds him back in the rude hut from which he started.  The structure is used in Have Space Suit--Will Travel, and it may be one of the things responsible for its fairy tale mood.  It might seem at first glance that this is a spiral since the hero comes back from his adventures a wiser, more competent fellow, but it isn't.  He comes back to exactly the same point he left, to pick up his life where he left it, back in the drugstore mixing malted milks.
    These simple structures can be complicated greatly by various narrative techniques -- flashbacks, multiple protagonists, multiple plots, and the like.  Generally, however, Heinlein hasn't used them.  He has always told his stories in the most straightforward possible manner (and I include "By His Bootstraps" and " 'All You Zombies--' ").  The one exception that occurs to me is Starship Troopers, which is not related in order.  Heinlein has always stuck to one point of view and one protagonist, and any experimentation along these lines (Beyond This Horizon, for instance) has been mild.

6. Attitude

    The words "romance" and "realism" are very slippery things to take hold of, and will be just as long as we can call Tennessee Williams both a realist and a romantic and mean something by the terms.  The dictionary doesn't help greatly, either.  Realism:  "A tendency to face facts and be practical rather than imaginary or visionary; the attempted picturing of people and things as they really are." Romance: "A fictitious tale of wonderful and extraordinary events, characterized by much imagination and idealization; a type of novel with emphasis on love, adventure, etc."  Where does that put Robinson Crusoe, a practical, fact-facing story about wonderful and extraordinary events?
    I can't propose a crisp, satisfactory and exhaustive definition of either word, but I can think of different things that I mean by the words:
Romance Realism
not sensitive

    It seems to me that any story that could be described by a preponderance of words from one list could then be labeled either romantic or realistic.  Let's take an example, a Saturday Evening Post story that I remember from the days when I combed old stacks of the Post for no reason that I can think of, except perhaps that at thirteen I found them entertaining.  In this story, a jealous and protective father and his pretty young daughter live near an airbase.  The protagonist is an airman who persuades the daughter to go to a dance with him against her father's wishes.  However, they don't get back home on time and the father suspects the worst.  When they do arrive, they say they had an auto breakdown on the way home.  The father doesn't believe this for a moment and kicks the airman off his place.  But then he has second thoughts:  the airman was oil top-to-bottom and there wasn't a single paw print on daughter's white party dress.  A happy ending follows, the airman being admitted to be a first-class citizen and daughter being allowed to go out with him again.  Stretching a point, this situation is life-as-experienced and prosaic.  The treatment of the situation, however, is emotional, simple, implausible and clichéd.  The situation, then, is realistic, after a fashion.  The treatment is romantic.
    In the same way, it seems to me that all speculative fiction is bound to be romantic in situation.  Science fiction stories are seldom life-as-experienced, seldom prosaic.  Some may be closer to what we know or think to be true, or closer to us in space or time than others, and hence more realistic, but this is a relative thing.  For a non-reader of science fiction, what is there to choose from between the situation of The Dragon in the Sea and that of The Weapon Shops of Isher, between "The Cold Equations" and Captain Future, The Enemy Stars and The Dying Earth?  To regular readers of science fiction, there is a difference, but to an outside observer all of these situations are likely to seem equally strange.  It seems to me, then, that within science fiction any major distinction between romantic and realistic stories has to be made in terms of treatment.
     Heinlein's story situations are sometimes more romantic than their science fictional nature requires.  Take, for example, two of Heinlein's accounts of the first trip to the Moon.  In one case, Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein has three boys and a scientist hop off to the Moon in the scientist's private spaceship.  In the other, "The Man Who Sold the Moon," the first trip to the Moon is financed by an extinct animal, the old-fashioned entrepreneur of the Carnegie-Rockefeller variety.  These situations are thoroughly romantic, and just as romantic are the situations of Sixth Column (seven men and super-science throw out a PanAsian invader), Double Star (we want you to impersonate the Supreme Minister of the Solar System), and Glory Road (needed, a Hero), just to name three.
    On the other hand, Heinlein's attitude toward his material is with little exception overwhelmingly realistic.  It is prosaic, plausible, complex, critical, unsentimental, and life-as-experienced.  More important, however, to his realism is the fact that Heinlein's treatments are intellectual rather than emotional.  Arthur Jean Cox has pointed out that Heinlein's stories have more warmth than passion, and this is one aspect of Heinlein's intellectualism.  Heinlein's characters seldom become angry, seldom become excited, seldom cry, feel despair or elation.  Like Heinlein they are interested in facts and in knowing how things work; passion would only be an intrusion in their lives.
    An example of this intellectualization can be seen in Heinlein's use of one of the ideas that he lent Theodore Sturgeon in a dry period, the idea that the reading of news may be a cause of mental illness.  Heinlein's use is non-dramatic, factual, and general:  Jubal Harshaw of Stranger in a Strange Land tells one of his secretaries to make a note of the idea so that Harshaw can write an article on the cause of neurosis.  Sturgeon's use of the idea in the short story "And Now the News. . .," on the other hand, is dramatic, personal and specific:  he is concerned with one man driven insane by a compulsion to identify with other people's troubles.  The difference is in attitude.  Heinlein's attitude is intellectual, Sturgeon's emotional, and in the same way, Heinlein's stories are always interesting but seldom, if ever, moving.
    An added factor in Heinlein's realism is his constant seriousness of purpose.  There is no comedy in his stories, or even levity, only a smattering of satire, and very little in the way of pure adventure.  Heinlein picks serious problems to write about and solves them as directly as he can.
    On balance, then, I would call Heinlein a realist.  His situations are romantic, but the difference between a romantic science fiction situation and a realistic one is comparative, and Heinlein's realism in treatment is so pervasive and so marked as to put him definitely in the realistic column.

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Note:  The print edition of Heinlein in Dimension is still available from Advent:Publishers, PO Box A3228, Chicago, IL 60690 or (autographed) from me .  $17 for a hardcover copy, $10 for a paperback.  I charge for shipping and handling, Advent doesn't.
    For those who may be interested, the circumstances surrounding the writing of this book are described elsewhere at this site, in The Story of Heinlein in Dimension.

Border courtesy of  The Humble Bee